As Brenda Ortiz sees it, successful row-crop farming in the 21st century is all about nuance, namely developing a keener eye for those subtle seasonal and agronomic changes that can offer great promise — or peril — depending how closely producers choose to observe them.

A big part of Ortiz’s career has been helping producers develop a keener eye for these subtle distinctions, though she admits that, in some respects, it hasn’t been easy.

Small wonder why: Farmers, especially row-crop producers, tend to be classic bottom-liners, realists interested only in cold, hard facts — the tangibles.

“It’s difficult to convince farmers to do something that is not tangible,” she says. “Unless something is tied to yields gains or reductions, farmers typically are not going to buy into it.”

Nevertheless, Ortiz is convinced that much of what will define successful farming in the next few decades will be closely bound up with many intangible factor.

Case in point: climate.  Ortiz says it’s often hard getting producers focused on patterns projected to occur months from now, even though she and other scientists from a variety of disciplines already have assembled a strong case demonstrating how these patterns can exert a major influence on their economic bottom line.

This has inspired Ortiz to provide an even more compelling case. Within the last few years, she has invested a big chunk of effort into marshaling facts — tangibles — to underscore why intangibles such as climate are as important to the producer’s bottom line as any other factor.

Ortiz, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System agronomist and Auburn University assistant professor in the Department of Agronomy and Soils, has focused on how the climatic patterns El Niño and La Niña contribute to growing conditions throughout the state.

For starters, research has demonstrated that in any year these climate patterns are not expressed uniformly throughout the state.

Like flipping a coin

“It’s like flipping a coin. During La Niña events, for example, rainfall differences in north Alabama are completely different from those of south Alabama,” she says.

Through a series of studies, Ortiz has developed a nuanced picture not only of how these climate patterns play out throughout the state during critical crop productions periods, but also what growers should do in response.

“What I want to do is help characterize climate patterns in a way that farmers not only understand how these effects are likely to play out but also the best management practices they can follow to optimize their opportunities during El Niño cycles or, in the case of La Niña patterns, to reduce their risks.”

A big focus of Ortiz’s has been on wheat, the crop typically under production during the times of year when these patterns exert the greatest effect in Alabama.

In the course of several studies, Ortiz has helped put together a clear picture not only of how these two patterns are expressed in temperature and rainfall variation throughout north, central and south Alabama but also how they affect winter wheat yields.

She’s complemented these efforts with a series of wheat variety studies through which she’s gained a clearer picture of the best management practices that should be adopted, mainly in terms of planting dates and variety selections.

Her ultimate goal is using all of this data to develop a highly interactive and accessible management tool.

“What we ultimately hope to do with all of this is provide farmers with a clear picture of best management tools based on all these different scenarios,” Ortiz says. “Using data provided by these tools, they will be well equipped to identify the wheat varieties best tailored to their planting times and growing conditions.

“Basically, we want to convey to producers how they can take advantage of optimal weather patterns and, during less desirable periods, what they can do to minimize their losses.”

In those off years when El Niño patterns prevail, producers are often better off planting wheat merely as a cover crop and saving the nitrogen that otherwise would be used with wheat for a more profitable crop, she says.

Ortiz isn’t stopping there.  She also wants to complement these best-management practices with ways to reduce water, carbon and nitrogen footprints. She is also working with scientists from several disciplines to develop a series of best management practices to better equip producers to deal with the enhanced disease and insect damage that often accompanies weather patterns.

All of her efforts are driven with one idea in mind: Using this greatly enhanced picture of climate to enable growers to take maximum advantage of good conditions and to reduce the effects of bad conditions.